We Watched It All: Fashion Week in Quarantine

Two Styles reporters look back on the fashion season that was. Spoiler: It was weirder than usual.

By Elizabeth Paton and Jessica Testa

It was the most unusual fashion season in living memory: largely digital and disjointed, thrown into chaos by the pandemic. Yet many designers soldiered on, making videos for their spring collections, hosting small insider-only presentations or putting on socially distant (or distant-ish) runway shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. And while the shows ranged from sweatpants formal to straight-up surreal, a few trends emerged.

Jessica Testa: We have to begin with the shoes, right?

Elizabeth Paton: I mean, it was the strangest ever season for catwalk shows. Why are we even surprised that it was the strangest season of footwear, too. Your favorite, Jess?

JT: I think the first weird shoes to catch my eye were in the Molly Goddard Ugg collaboration. Which you saw in person in London.

EP: By catch your eye, you mean covet and want to buy? Don’t be shy to say so.

JT: Yes. Well. No. Mixed feelings about actually buying them.

EP: Bad in rain was my view. Apparently it rained every day in Paris (where we weren’t, because of the pandemic). Instead, we made up the digital front (second and third) row as most of the usual fashion week attendees tuned in from home.

JT: Yes, and we’re still working from home for the foreseeable future, which makes buying showy shoes feel a little pointless. At the same time, a weird shoe can spark joy in this joyless time! You’re hunched over a computer 24/7, but then you look down and you’re wearing mules that seem to be made from Elmo’s skin.

EP Do you think that the huge sales spike in Crocs is because they spark joy in people? (I understand why they exist in hospitals and kitchens, but aesthetically I continue to hate Crocs). I liked the Hermès status clogs. Delicious. I was pleasantly baffled by the horny reptilian shoes from Matthew Williams’s Givenchy debut. Fully alarmed by the metal clamp-ons at Paco Rabanne, making the wearer look imprisoned yet airborne at same time.

JT: I think for the fashion crowd, Crocs are more of a novelty item — so yes, joy-sparking, or at least Instagram like-sparking. But speaking of foot imprisonment: the three-toe high-heeled sandals at Givenchy!

EP: Move over, Margiela Tabis.

JT: I just appreciate the audacity. Even if I reflexively cringe when imagining putting them on.

EP: Toe cleavage and ugly shoes have long been a favorite fashion fetish. A new trend this season, though, was beekeeper outfits. The whole hog at Kenzo. Vibes at Thom Browne and Marine Serre. It’s a look that is really creating a buzz (sorry).

JT: Forgiven. Would you wear a beekeeper veil, Lizzie?

EP: Yes. Perhaps on a bee farm, or for other bucolic countryside activities. But not at fashion week, or anywhere else. Certainly not in my living room, where I currently spend 92 percent of my time. Though the intended symbolism wasn’t lost on me.

JT: They do have a PPE vibe. (Minus the second P. I don’t think they’re particularly safe.)

EP: Agree! Big, cocooning, protective sartorial spheres were available from the likes of Loewe and Simone Rocha, too. And a lot of baggy pants and balloon sleeves and cozy hoodies. Our colleague Guy Trebay has written beautifully on how lockdown life has hastened the gender-blurring underway in fashion.

Though for me there were lots of nods there, too, to the growing informality of our lifestyles and the fact that we have nothing to dress up for right now. Very little tailoring to speak of, besides a few big, bold shoulders that would take someone’s eye out (I’m looking at you Olivier Rousteing! And at you Nicolas Ghesquière!)

JT: At the same time, there were a fair number of vests layered under blazers — we’re simply not giving up on suiting — and harnesses layered over dresses. Thebe Magugu and Rokh used them to turn pretty dresses into something tougher and more postapocalyptic. (I loved them.) But obviously oversize and relaxed silhouettes resonate more in this particular moment.

EP: Shall I tell you what was also apparently resonating but didn’t really resonate with me. Crop tops. So many crop tops — at Miu Miu, Versace, Dior and Chanel, to name but a few. Skin is in, apparently.

JT: Yes, and I lean more toward the white Balenciaga “Paris Fashion Week” sweatsuit for spring.

EP: On the subject of Balenciaga, I feel as if Demna Gvasalia, who gave us the most apocalyptic show experience last season, was a lot more optimistic in his offering this season. It was still a bit sinister, obviously, with models stomping around in the dark in the City of Light to a remix of Corey Hart’s 1984 hit, “Sunglasses At Night.”

But there was an upbeat allure and couture-tinged glamour to his pandemic-proof loungewear. I loved it. I was distracted from my rainy new homebound status quo. But it didn’t feel escapist either. Those gaiters will definitely sell.

JT I would say much of this season’s collections came across as light and bright, and not just because they’re meant for next spring. If designers were feeling as gloomy and claustrophobic as the rest of us, they didn’t tap into that depression. Maybe their tendency toward joy and fantasy was less about giving consumers an escape and more about giving themselves one.

Also: Are gaiters going to be our winter face masks? I hadn’t even thought about that.

EP: Something we both noticed was a near universal absence of masks from collections. The fashion search engine Tagwalk reported that the keyword with the biggest percentage of search increases since the spring-summer 2020 collections was masks — up 17,004.5 percent.

OK, the likes of Rick Owens and Marine Serre offered up masks and chiffon balaclavas, but dressing for a dystopian hellscape has been their schtick for a long time. Did you think there would be more of a direct response from designers to the times we are living in, Jess? Doesn’t fashion need to opt into reality if it is to stay relevant?

JT: I was hoping for more masks. Practically, they are the only accessory that matters right now. I get that some designers may have been wary of putting masks on the runway. A few luxury brands were criticized early in the pandemic for selling expensive masks. But since then, masks have been much more integrated into our lives and wardrobes. This is a chance to respond to the world we’re living in, which is what fashion should do.

EP: I guess the collections this season felt far more celebratory than I expected. Far more business as usual.

JT: And should business be as usual? Some of the shows with audiences had their guests sitting pretty close to each other. Maybe not as close as usual — that is, elbow-to-elbow — but certainly not six feet apart. That seemed pretty tone-deaf to me, particularly as Covid-19 infections are rising again in France. But I do understand the impulse to forge ahead with the shows. We know that they employ a lot of people.

EP: There was a message to send about industry stability, for sure. And plenty of distracting sparkles and sequins, on shoes and sheath dresses and coat trimmings and even head-to-toe tuxedos. Ultimately, heady escapism is what fashion is particularly good for and heaven knows we need some right now. I had a particular soft spot for the Schiaparelli face jewelry. Who among us doesn’t see the allure of 24-carat gold eye glasses with blocked-in lenses and precious stones where your eyes should be?

JT: Please don’t forget the gilded coaster-size earrings. See, those are very Zoom friendly. It’s relevant escapism!

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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